09/19/97 - 03:40 PM ET - Click reload often for latest version

Campaign reform bill caught in partisan squabble

WASHINGTON - Senate Democrats on Friday turned aside an offer by majority Republicans to bring a campaign finance reform bill to the floor before Congress adjourns for the year because the leadership did not set a date.

Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle objected to an offer by Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott to bring the bill to the floor "before the close of the first session of the 105th Congress."

He accused Lott of blindsiding Democratic leaders by bringing the proposal for consideration of the bill to the floor and asking unanimous consent for its approval without talking to them in advance.

Lott, of Mississippi, retorted that "if the senator is surprised, he's the only person in the room, in the building, in the media,"

It was the latest exchange in a game of political oneupmanship by Democratic and Republican leaders in connection with legislation to overhaul the system of campaign finance laws, and came as the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee was proceeding with hearings into allegations of violations of campaign laws in the last election.

The fight centered on bipartisan legislation cosponsored by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russell Feingold, D-Wis., and which has been endorsed by all 45 Democrats in the Senate.

Participants from both sides of the behind-the-scenes discussions this week, speaking on condition of anonymity, had said that if the bill did reach the Senate floor, it would probably be around mid-October.

But today, in his offer to fellow senators, Lott did not specify a date. He said only - in proposing the "unanimous consent" resolution - that the position of the Senate is that the bill should be taken up before Congress leaves for the year. This is the first year of the two-year 105th Congress.

Daschle, of South Dakota, immediately objected to the proposal on behalf of Senate Democrats.

" ... I'm presented with this about 30 seconds ago. No consultation, no discussion, no deliberation. ... It's an ultimatum, take it or leave it," he said. "It's no way to do business around here. It's an affront to the Democratic caucus and to me personally."

Countered Lott: "If this is a sneak attack, you know, then there hasn't been such a well-covered sneak attack since Pearl Harbor."

Daschle accused Lott of setting up Democrats for public rebuke by proposing ground rules for consideration of the bill which the Republican knew would be unacceptable.

Glancing toward the press gallery overlooking the Senate chamber, the South Dakotan said, "This is designed for all the people up there who will write that Democrats objected to a unanimous consent. This is a game."

Lott indicated the tentative plans are for Congress to leave by Nov. 7. Daschle responded by asking the majority leader to amend his proposal to state that the campaign finance bill would be brought to the floor no later than Oct. 31, allowing a week for debate and votes, but Lott demurred.

"I do not intend to have this issue come up on the last day or the last week of the session," Lott said. "I'd presume that we'd probably want to look for a date earlier in the month of October ... but I think that this consent request is an honest one and a fair one for now and I'd like to leave it as it is so we'll have a full panoply of options."

Daschle earlier today had cautioned that the Democrats would turn against the bill if Republicans insisted on including a provision letting union members be reimbursed for dues spent on political purposes they oppose. "It would kill political campaign finance reform," he said.

Participants from both sides speaking on condition of anonymity said if the bill does reach the Senate floor, it would probably be around mid-October.

Last week Democrats applied pressure on Lott, circulating a letter signed by all 45 Democratic senators expressing support for the McCain-Feingold bill. Two other Senate Republicans besides McCain - Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Fred Thompson of Tennessee - have expressed support for the bill, leaving backers at least two short of a majority.

Lott and other GOP leaders have been insisting that any consideration of fund-raising reform should wait until after the Governmental Affairs Committee completes its hearings, though Lott softened that stance last week.

Privately, many incumbents of both parties like the current system because historically the preponderance of contributions by political action committees and individuals usually goes to officeholders seeking re-election.

The current McCain-Feingold bill would ban soft money, the unrestricted contributions going to political parties, and offer other incentives for politicians to curb their campaign spending.

In an effort to restrict help for wealthy candidates, it also would limit aid from political parties to Senate hopefuls who spend more than $50,000 of their own money on their campaigns.

By The Associated Press

Copyright 1997 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.